Named after the eponymous hero of the “Manas Epos,” the Kyrgyz national epic, the American Transit Center at the Manas airport near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan was originally opened through an agreement with Kyrgyzstan’s former President, Askar Akayev, in December of 2001 to support operations in Afghanistan. The siting of the base in Kyrgyzstan was a political coup for Akayev -- the government of Tajikistan had also hoped to negotiate a deal to open an airbase, but Manas was ultimately chosen instead – and brought much-needed money into the sagging Kyrgyz economy, factors that both helped to shore up Akayev’s legitimacy during a period in which his government was becoming increasingly unpopular.
From the very beginning, however, the Transit Center has been mired in controversy. During the Akayev era, much of the money that was flowing into Kyrgyzstan through Manas ended up in the hands of corrupt government insiders, including members of Akayev’s family. As Alexander Cooley has noted, “[t]he lion’s share of base-related funds flowed not to national agencies… but to private Kyrgyz entities closely tied to the ruling regime.” When Akayev was ousted in the 2005 Tulip Revolution, his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, took a harder line on the base, and demanded more money from the U.S. government to continue operating the base. Although Bakiyev was only able to extract limited concessions from the United States, he was successful in exploiting the popular association of the Manas Transit Center with the corruption of the Akayev regime. This perception has only continued to grow, since successive Kyrgyz governments have enriched themselves through Manas. Indeed, one analyst has written that Manas “has become a milling method for the ruling elite.” Many local businessmen, moreover, have begun to complain that lobster, choice cuts of meat, and other gourmet food is being smuggled off the base by figures associated with organized crime and being sold at below-market prices in Bishkek, effectively undercutting their business. Decades of corruption and criminal activity have thus bred no small amount of resentment towards the presence of the Transit Center.
Another factor that contributes to bitterness vis-à-vis Manas is the widespread perception that the United States is an arrogant, imperialist power. Noise from the airbase, as well as jettisoning of fuel by American aircraft have enraged locals, as have incidents, such as a 2006 collision involving an American KC-135 Stratotanker and a civilian Tu-154. The handling of the 2006 shooting of Aleksandr Ivanov, a Kyrgyzstani driver who worked on the base, by Zachary Hatfield, an Air Force serviceman, only added to the perception that the United States has little regard for Kyrgyzstan beyond its utility as an airbase. Hatfield was never charged, and Ivanov’s family was offered $2000 in recompense, which Harper’s notes was “an act widely viewed in Kyrgyzstan as a calculated insult.” Harper's goes on to note that “The American management of the incident was totally bungled, leaving the local population with the idea that the Americans on the base were arrogant and not accountable to the law. The public’s view of Americans underwent a radical and sudden transformation. A nation once seen as generous benefactors now were seen as arrogant bullies.”
In the wake of the May, 2013 crash of another KC-135 at Manas, similar concerns are once again being voiced. There have been complaints that the Americans have been “obstructing” the examination by Kyrgyz authorities of the bodies of the servicemen killed in the crash. Although the United States is within its right to do so, such actions nevertheless contribute to the widespread view that the U.S. is supercilious and condescending towards its Kyrgyz counterparts. Others have gone so far as to say the way the United States handled the crash site effectively denied Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty over parts of its own territory. In early May, a youth group, Zhon Ele, which has previously called for investigations into possible human rights violations, human trafficking, and drug smuggling at Manas, as well as into allegations that nuclear weapons targeted at Iran were located there (allegations that have been strenuously denied), held a protest against the base in Bishkek, shouting slogans like “Yankees, get out of Kyrgyzstan,” “Yankees, go home,” and “No to transit of NATO weapons.” They argued that military equipment had “no place adjacent to a civilian and international airport” and warned of the possibility that a fuel laden tanker jet could crash into a nearby city. Others in the Kyrgyz government have raised the spectre of American military aircraft crashing into the Chavlodar power plant, which is in the region. In an interview with Eurasianet, Roza Otunbayeva, the former President of Kyrgyzstan, claimed that the “whole [Kyrgyz] nation” worries of the possibility that the military base could become a target for terrorists. The base’s very proximity to Bishkek is therefore a major concern, at least from a security standpoint.
Pressure from Russia is another major driver of Kyrgyz concerns vis-à-vis the Transit Center at Manas. Kyrgyzstan remains largely dependent on Russia for its military, economic, and energy needs, and so cannot afford to ignore Moscow. As Josh Kucera at Eurasianet has pointed out, “the Kremlin has offered a huge military aid package to Kyrgyzstan, which Russian officials have said is intended to shore up their geopolitical position in Central Asia, at the expense of the U.S.’s.” Kyrgyzstan is part of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, and a Russian airbase in the city of Kant was established shortly after the U.S. began operating out of Manas. President Atambayev, moreover, appears to value closer ties with Russia than did his predecessors. Although he has declared that there will be “no military equipment” at Manas after 2014 and advocated turning the airport into a civilian hub, there have nevertheless been talks regarding the potential for developing a “joint Kyrgyzstan-Russian logistics center” at the base.
As of May 21, 2013, Kyrgyzstan has declared that the American Transit Center at Manas will indeed be closed by the end of 2014, as previously announced. Although some worry that the Americans’ departure will leave a deep hole in the Kyrgyz economy, President Atambayev has assured the public that the roughly 60 million dollars that will leave the country will be compensated by revenue from “other projects.” Barring any major developments, then, it would appear that Manas will indeed close according to the schedule dictated by the Kyrgyz government. Due to ongoing corruption associated with the base, perceptions that the Transit Center is an outpost for an arrogant and dismissive American empire, and continuing pressure from Kyrgyzstan's most important ally, Russia, local views of the American presence at Manas are not positive. Aside from those deriving direct benefit from the base’s continued operation – corrupt officials, organized crime, and regular employees who work at the base – it would appear that few in Kyrgyzstan will mourn its demise.